Italian celebrity Joe Bastianich calls Italian diners “idiots”

joe bastianich deficiente

Above: Joe Bastianich is an even bigger celebrity in Italy than in the U.S.

One of the first things that Lidia Bastianich told me when she cooked lunch for me and a group of wine bloggers at the family’s farmhouse in Friuli was how her son Joe has eclipsed her fame in Italy.

“We were in Piazza San Marco [in Venice] and a group of teenagers came up to us and wanted Joe’s autograph — not mine,” she said.

As a star of one of Italy’s most popular TV shows (“Master Chef”), Joe has achieved a level of celebrity in Italy that few in the U.S. are aware of.

His name was hurled across the Italophone enogastronomic blogosphere this week when, in a video interview posted online by the national daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, he called Italian diners “idiotic,” using the Italian term deficiente.

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Lidia Bastianich, portrait of an Italian-American mother

Preparations for Mother’s Day at our house got me thinking about one of the most famous Italian-American mothers, Lidia Bastianich. Here are some notes from a recent lunch hosted by her at the Bastianich summer home in Friuli for the Colli Orientali del Friuli blogger project.

It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Lidia Bastianich has had on gastronomic culture in the United States and on the renaissance of Italian cuisine throughout the world.

She is to our generation what Julia Child and James Beard were to my mother’s generation (my mother was a James Beard devotee, for the record).

And to her credit, she has never wavered from her devotion to regional Italian cuisine. Long before “peasant” food (what an awful and despicable term!), “rustico” cuisine, or even “Northern vs. Southern” Italian cooking ever appeared in the American gastronomic lexicon, Lidia championed regional culinary traditions from Italy, first in the Croatian neighborhood in Queens where she and her family got their start and then later at Felidia in Manhattan (a restaurant where I used to regularly take my mother during the decade that I lived in New York).

In 1998 — the year that Babbo opened and the year that “regional Italian” became bywords of food culture in America — Lidia launched her first cooking show, “Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen” on PBS. To this day, Tracie P’s Saturday morning ritual is not complete without watching a DVR’d episode.

I asked Lidia to share her thoughts about the renaissance of Italian gastronomy and her role in Italy’s culinary conquest of the U.S. palate and hedonist imagination.

Her response, I must say, surprised and inspired me.

“When you look at the great beauty of Italy,” she said. “It’s easy to understand why the Italians are such creative people. From the [historic] Renaissance to this day, Italians have made so many contributions to the arts and culture. It was only natural that Italian cooking would do the same.”

“I don’t know if I’ve been an architect of the Italian culinary renaissance as you put it,” she added graciously. “But when I am surrounded by this beauty and the goodness of the ingredients I find here, I know that I am inspired by them.”

Lidia also told me that she has been asked to be the madrina (i.e., the grand marshal) of the first-ever “Biennial of Cuisine” in Venice. I wasn’t surprised by this news: her celebrity and her contributions to the dissemination of Italian cuisine and culture in the U.S. is not lost on Italians — at least, gauging from my Italian colleagues and counterparts.

“But it’s really Joe [Bastianich, her son] who’s become a celebrity here,” she told me. His appearances on “MasterChef Italia” (the number-one rated show in Italy this year, I was told by a journalist at our luncheon) have made him a megawatt star there.

“Just the other day, we were stopped by school children in Venice who wanted his autograph,” she said.

Whether or not her celebrity is or will be eclipsed by her son’s is irrelevant, really. After all, if it weren’t for Lidia, there would be no Joe, would there?

As a proud new father myself, I couldn’t resist the urge to share a photo of Georgia P with Lidia.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, “but she’s a prettier version of you.”

Words only a mother could utter.

Di mamme, ce n’è una sola… You only have one mother…

Here’s a link to some photos of what Lidia made us for lunch that day.

The Babbo effect and a visit to the Bastianich winery in Colli Orientali del Friuli

Above: My friend Wayne Young, whom I met in 1998 in New York when he had already been working within the then-expanding Bastianich empire for three years. In the photo, Wayne is standing atop the amphitheater growing site where the top wines for the Bastianich winery are grown in the Colli Orientali del Friuli.

Babbo changed everything. It was “a fine-dining Italian à la carte restaurant below 14th St.,” as Joe Bastianich put it when I first met him in 1998 (when I was working as an editor at La Cucina Italiana in the City).

Ruth Reichl’s watershed New York Times review of the place in April 1998, “A Radical Departure with Sure Footing,” marked a point of no return for pseudo-Italian restaurateurship in the U.S.

I remember that Wednesday in August 1998 well: it was the day that Italian gastronomic irony died and the newly minted craze of Italian regional cuisine took firm hold in North America. Whether you liked Babbo or not (and who didn’t want to get a table at Babbo?), from that day forward, if you cooked Italian food in the U.S., you had to do it earnestly: your food was only as good as the authenticity that stood behind it.

Above: Alfonso tasting with the COF2011 blogger team and winemaker Emilio del Medico and winery GM Dennis Lepore.

Wayne Young and I first met back in those heady days of New York’s Italian food scene. We all knew a revolution was taking place even though, from the eye of the storm, we didn’t realize its portent. Today, Wayne — who has worked as a sommelier at Bastianich outposts Becco and Babbo — serves as the Bastianich winery’s “special ops” man on the ground in the Colli Orientali del Friuli (the blogger project there was his idea). He is involved in every aspect of the operation, from winemaking (a wasp in his pants is what gave him the idea to call the winery’s flagship white “Vespa”!) to sales (ask him what it’s like to sell wine in Serbia!) and marketing (he is the only Friulian winemaker to author a winery blog).

Wayne is a remarkable man, with great generosity of heart and a warm gentleness. I’ve never heard him say a nasty word about anyone and I admire him for the way he lives his life perfectly integrated into Friulian society where he is welcomed and beloved by all we met. Despite his nordic locks, everyone calls him “a local” up there in northeasternmost Italy.

Above: In our tasting last week at the winery, my favorite wine was the 2009 Sauvignon Bianco. Fresh and clean, with balanced aromatic character and that bright acidity that I want (and need), it should retail for under $20 in the U.S. The Bastianich Sauvignon has a screw cap, a feature that allows the winemaker to add a smaller amount of sulfite to the wine, because the screw cap allows less oxidation (where a cork, an organic substance, would allow more).

Like Wayne, the Bastianich family has been welcomed in the Colli Orientali del Friuli as winemakers. President of the COF consortium Pierluigi Comelli told us the story of how Joe and mother Lidia came to him asking for advice on where to buy property and set up their facility. Ultimately, on his advice, they revived a winery that had abandoned after the owner’s untimely passing. And they bought uncultivated growing sites where they cleared the woods themselves to make way for vineyards. After a week in the COF, I had a clear sense that winemakers there appreciate the expanded exposure and bandwidth that the Bastianich brand brings with it. “Everyone rises with the tide” seemed to be the consensus.

Above: On Friday evening, the last of our trip in the COF, we took time out to celebrate with a beer in Cividale del Friuli. You can’t really help but smile when you’re around Wayne — it’s contagious. That’s Nicolas, David, and Alfonso to the right.

Spending the week tasting and comparing notes with Wayne (who, as a local winemaker, shared a lot of interesting insights with the group), I couldn’t help but think back to 1998, when we first met and none of us really understood what was about to happen. As Eric the Red recently pointed out to me, it was a time of Italian gastronomic “innocence” (it is Eric whom Mario Batali’s father Armandino credits for having “discovered” his son’s talent in 1993).

I’m glad to know that the fame and the celebrity hasn’t changed my old friend Wayne.